Let's talk about breeding.
If there's one thing we've learned so far, it's that there are so many more breeds of cow than one might suspect. From a few common ancestors, dozens, hundreds, of breeds have stepped forward, each with their own unique qualities. Qualities that are selected for, sought after, glorified, and carried on.
However, sometimes the progenitors of modern breeds change. As the human need for specific traits ebbs and flows, the cows continue to evolve, sometimes with those human instincts, sometimes against them. So it is with the Casta Navarra, father of fighting bulls. One of them, anyway.
Hailing from the region of Navarra, Spain, these agile cows were once among the breeds used to sire the bulls of La Fiesta Brava fame- the bulls behind Spanish bullfighting.
Bullfighting is a time-honored tradition in Spain (and some other parts of the world) and while it is controversial, it still happens. The bulls selected for bullfighting must be large, strong, and intimidating. Muscle-bound and agile bulls both look good in the ring, and present an honest challenge for the torero (bullfighter). The Casta Navarra once had these desired qualities, but they have since fallen out of favor.
They were too good at what they do.
Casta Navarra cattle still exist and are sometimes used for breeding dual work and beef cattle, but aren't used for bullfighting anymore, at least not in the same capacity as they once were. Traces of their blood can still be found in fighting cattle, but they aren't chosen for specifically. They belong to what are called "Iberian Black Cattle" which is a collection of breeds hailing from the Iberian Peninsula, located in southern Europe and largely split between Spain and Portugal. Many breeds from this region contributed to bullfighting, but few are still seen in the ring. Cabrera and Gallardo are a couple of other breeds in the same boat. Ancient, seen in trace amounts, but not kept in the same capacity. Breeds that are still seen are the Vistahermosa, Cabrera, and Vazqueña.
Well if those are the bullfighting cattle, why aren't we talking about them?
We will! Today's article is a bit nebulous. I thought it would be interesting to look into cows that have fallen out of favor and how breeding trends affect modern cows, but information is a bit limited, so we're going to discuss a few different breeds.
All right, then.
Bulls selected for fighting need to be muscular, but not weighed down with meat like one might see in cows bred for beef. They need to be agile, so they can run and put on a show. They need to be clever, to present a challenge for the fighter. However, a bull that is too clever can sometimes be a problem. The early progenitors of Navarrese cattle are said to be very aggressive and smart. When bullfighting was done on horseback, they intentionally felled and gored the horses, even biting them, which is somewhat unusual for a horned animal. When taunted with a cape, the cow has been known to pursue the bandarillos (assistant fighters in charge of putting barbs in the bull during a fight) instead of paying attention to the cape waved by the torero.
In addition to being unhesitating and aggressive, the Navarrese cattle were also very agile, quick to turn mid-motion and proving to be a problem for bullfighters, seeming to anticipate their every move.
Due to these factors, cattle from the Navarrese line are no longer used in bullfighting.
So where are these cows now?
Well, only a handful of enthusiasts maintain this breed, and as with many niche interests, it is a matter of passion. There is still some use for them, such as draft work as well as other, agility-based entertainments. One such is "thread competitions" which is a demonstration wherein a group of 6 people with a wicker basket (a big one) try to get the attention of a heifer, getting her to repeatedly butt the basket while remaining in a circle. In this sort of competition, smart and agile cows are desired. But typically, they are allowed to graze freely, and are handsome, aloof creatures.
The numbers of this breed are small, in the 2-or-300's, listed as "endangered-maintained" by the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization). I have run into a similar issue as I did with the Kuchinoshima, wherein I have found some interesting material on genetic diversity, but information is otherwise limited. So it seems to go with any cow of limited breeding stock that is semi-feral. This breed is often lumped together with other breeds that have faced a similar trend, as they each carry similar traits. Let's talk about them in relation to how they affect today's fighting bulls.
The Spanish Fighting Bull
Known as Toro de Lidia or Lidia, what sets this breed apart form most cattle is that it is not bred for milk production or muscle load, but for attitude. The physical product presented by the cow is a byproduct of its personality. A muscled, strong cow with no violent inclination would have no place in a ring, but a feisty, quick cow? That's interesting.
One thing that really sets this cow apart is the idea that it might be the most aurochs-looking cow existing in the modern world. Many of the Iberian cattle share these features. The humped shoulders (distinct from the soft lump of the zebus), long legs, and short body trunks, along with the general head and horn shape, are reminiscent of ancient cattle. There are some efforts to "breed back" these ancient beasts through selective breeding.
There are some issues with this concept. One being that Spanish Fighting Bulls are a bit short, standing at 4' to 4.5', while aurochs reportedly pushed 6'. The compact size makes them easier to handle in the ring, much larger and the bullfighter is going to have a devil of a time staying out of its way. There is also discussion around what the demeanor of these cows is "supposed" to be. They were bred for aggression, but is the original auroch much more docile? But cows that are too trusting also would not have survived the ages. Where is that fine line of survivability and hostility?
There is some concern that continued crossbreeding will result in the loss of these ancient traits, but it is possible that as the world sees less bullfighting, the breeding trends will change once more, and we'll find ourselves with new cattle strains. Maybe we'll define a new breed of "sport" cattle. Maybe we'll create a living fossil of yesterday's cattle. Maybe lots of interesting things will happen as the world of genetics dives deeper into these beasts that have shaped our lives for centuries.
The extensive use of cattle in society has led to a fray of different breeds, and as breeding trends change, previous cow types are cast aside and left to wander. But as these cows are left to their own devices, what can they teach us about cows from the past, and the future, for that matter? Only time will tell.